WHICH HAND TOOLS DO YOU NEED TO GET STARTED IN TRADITIONAL WOODWORKING?
By Joshua Farnsworth
Below you’ll see my list of the very basic hand tools that you will need to accumulate in order to start building the most basic woodworking projects. When you’re ready you can follow the blue buttons to get help with choosing hand tool features, brands, & models. See my full list of tools at the bottom of this page.
1. Buy or Build a Workbench
A workbench has always been the center of a traditional woodworker’s universe. If you’re really on a tight budget you can get away with almost anything that allows you to secure your wood in place for planing and sawing.
However, I would recommend that you purchase (or build…if you’ve got the skill) a very heavy & sturdy workbench, with at least a 3″ solid top, strong supportive base legs, and two strong wooden face vices. Wooden vices will securely hold your wood with an incredible pressure without marring the wood.
2. Buy a Jack Plane
A Jack Plane is a middle size “bench plane” (i.e. planes that are used so often that they are usually on your workbench). If you’re on a budget a jack plane can temporarily be used for several functions: (1) rough stock removal (if you buy a second iron/blade and shape it with a curved “camber”), (2) jointing board edges (as long as they aren’t too long), and (3) smoothing the boards.
You’ll eventually want to purchase a dedicated smoothing plane (No. 4) and jointer plane (No. 7), but a Jack Plane will let you get started working! A low angle Jack Plane would be ideal for beginners and professionals.
3. Buy a Block Plane
Block planes have become one of the most often-used tools in a traditional-style workshop. They can be used to trim your joints, put champhers on edges, trim end grain, etc. I would recommend finding a low angle block plane, because the low angle lets you cut difficult grain more easily.
I personally prefer a low angle rabbet block plane because it allows me to trim right up against a tenon cheek or other joints. My tool buying guide goes into more detail about the features and brands that you should look for when purchasing a good quality block plane.
4. Buy Two Panel Saws: Rip and Cross Cut
Panel saws are long, thin saws with a comfortable wooden handle. They are used for rough dimensioning of your lumber. Panel saws come in two tooth configurations: “Rip” (cuts along the grain…like a chisel) and “Cross Cut” (cuts across the grain…like a knife). You will need both.
Panel saws can be found for quite little money (as little as $5 a piece), but you need to know what you’re looking for. My buying guide will help you know which brands & models to look out for at your local flea markets or on eBay.
5: Buy Three Back Saws: Dovetail Saw, Carcass Saw, & Tenon Saw
Unlike panel saws, “back saws” are used for fine accurate work while making wooden joints (like dovetail joints). The thin metal saw plates are made stiff with steel or brass “backs”.
Your first backsaws should be (1) a dovetail saw used for cutting joinery along the grain (rip teeth), (2) a “carcass saw” used for cutting across the grain (cross cut teeth), and (3) a larger tenon saw used for cutting deeper cuts, like tenon cheeks, along the grain (rip teeth). All three saws are used very, very often in my workshop.
6. Buy a Miter Box and Miter Saw
A good miter box & saw will enable you to cut your wood to very accurate & square lengths. This will especially save you a lot of time in trying to square your board ends when building boxes/tool chests. The long miter saw glides back and forth through a saw frame.
The frame’s angles can be changed to enable you to cut perfect miter joints (think picture frames) and many other joints. I use my miter saw more than any other saw. I’ve bought them used for as little as $15.
7. Buy a Coping Saw
The very affordable coping saw (around $20) is regularly used for rough cutting shapes in the board, but especially for removing waste from dovetail joints (one of the most common wood joints). An affordable coping saw will work just fine as long as you have pleanty of replacement blades on hand (also very affordable).
Visit my hand saw buying guide for more detail on brands & features to look for when purchasing a coping saw.
8. Buy a Bench Chisel Set
Don’t cheap out here. A high quality set of bevel edge bench chisels (new or vintage) will last you for years and will be used on nearly any project imaginable. I’ve used some descent affordable plastic handle bench chisels, but highly prefer lighter wooden handle chisels with excellent steel.
A good set of 5-7 bench chisels (doesn’t have to match) will get you going right away. Down the road you’ll eventually add some paring chisels, but you can pare with bench chisels to some extent. Read the warnings in my chisel buying guide.
9. Buy a 1/4″ Mortise Chisel
To start off you only need a 1/4″ mortise chisel (or some size close to it). You don’t ned a whole set. Mortise chisels (also spelled “mortice”) are used for chopping mortises (rectangular holes) into the side of your board for insertion of a tenon. “Mortise and Tenon” is a very common and very strong joint.
I prefer the English style “pig sticker” mortise chisels because of their strength and weight. My chisel buying guide shows where to find these chisels and what to look for when buying them.
10. Buy a 6-inch Combination Square
A very good and accurate 6-inch combination square is used for so, so many tasks in my workshop, including checking the squareness of boards (when planing them to final dimension), scribing dovetail joints & many other joints, and much, much more.
Don’t follow the temptation to cheap out and buy a very affordable combination square. Because, like me, you will replace it because of its inacuracy. If you want your joinery to fit dead on, then you need to scribe it dead on. Unfortunately there is really only one company that makes a super accurate combination square. But fortunately it is amazing, and I use it daily.
11. Buy or Build a Try Square
If you’re not confident enough to build your own try square at this point you should purchase a good metal try square (somewhere between 9 and 12 inches). It’ll be used for scribing square lines down the face of your boards, such as a line for where to cut with your saw.
Most try squares that I’ve found (used or new) are actually a perfect 90 degrees, or “square”. But you can use a file to bring it back to square. My marking & measuring buying guide explains how to check a square and also how to fix one that is “out of square”.
12. Buy a Sliding Bevel Square
A sliding bevel square (or “bevel gauge”) is used for scribing angles on your workpiece. Once set, a good sliding bevel square should be able to repeat that angle over and over again, like when you are laying out dovetails on a board face.
Not all sliding bevel squares are good at holding that angle, so make sure you read more in my marking & measuring buying guide before you purchase a bevel gauge.
13. Buy Two Pairs of Dividers (Compass)
Dividers (or compass) are also used for taking and repeating a measurement over and over again on a work piece. “Joiners” (or traditional woodworkers who build furniture) rarely take measurements with a tape measure when doing fine joinery work, but rather take a measurement with dividers then transfer that arbitrary (yet accurate) measurement to another work piece.
Dividers are also used for scribing arcs and much more. You should definitely have at least two “pair” of dividers because you regularly will be transferring more than one measurement at a time. I prefer a little 3″ pair and a larger 6″ or 9″ pair.
14. Buy a Marking Gauge
Like dividers, marking gauges are used for transferring a measurement and repeating it over and over again. A locking mechanism keeps the gauge from slipping and loosing that measurement. You cannot build furniture without at least one good sturdy marking gauge.
The wheel-style gauge that I recommend in my buying guide will allow you to not only mark one measurement, but two measurements at once, thus eliminating the need to purchase a separate mortise gauge. It’s nice to save money. But beware of the cheap marking gauges that I mention in my buying guide. They will be useless.
15. Buy a Folding Rule and/or Tape Measure
A “folding rule” (not “ruler”) is a predecessor to a tape measure, and allows you to take rough measurements when cutting boards, etc. If you’re on a tight budget, a small tape measure can be used for the same job of rough measurement (think lumber yard). I use both.
A nice vintage 24-inch wooden rule is so handy to have because it slips into your pocket and gives you quick measurements. They are pretty affordable, but you need to know what to look for so you don’t get a dudd. Yes…again, check my buying guide.
16. Buy a Marking Knife
A marking knife is used for marking where you will be cutting with your saws. For getting into tight spots (like dovetails) and making very accurate lines (which is vital for tight fitting joints) you need just the right marking knife. You would think that any old knife would work, but you would be wrong. I purchased several that didn’t work well.
Marking knives can get very expensive, but fortunately I found a very affordable knife ($10 or $15) that works perfectly. Check my marking & measuring buying guide to see what to look for (and what to avoid) when buying a marking knife.
17. Buy Sharpening Supplies
Having very sharp tools is one of the most important aspects of proper traditional woodworking. Many beginners think that they stink at woodworking, but usually they are just using dull (or improperly sharpened) hand tools. To start off with I recommend buying sharpening supplies for sharpening & honing your chisels and hand plane irons. You can learn saw sharpening in a few months (if you purchase a new sharpened saw).
I recommend buying (1) a grinder with a cool cutting stone (either hand crank or power), (2) a honing guide, (3) good quality water stones (read my buying guide for grit options and bad stones to avoid), and a diamond lapping plate, for flattening your water stones.
18. Buy a Wooden Mallet
A good wooden mallet is vital for traditional woodworking. I prefer the English-style Carpenter’s mallets, but you can also purchase a lighter carver’s mallet (not heavy enough for some projects).
Wooden mallets are mostly used for hitting your chisels when cutting joints (like dovetail joints or chopping mortises). You should never, never, never hit a chisel with a metal hammer. Buy a mallet that is made of fairly hard wood (e.g. beach wood) and that will feel well balanced in your hand.
19. Buy a Large Shoulder plane
A large shoulder plane has so many uses, such as trimming tenons & other joinery, cutting rabbets, removing waste for hand cut moldings, etc. You probably won’t need this plane until you cut your first tenons or rabbets, but get it soon.
I prefer the large size because it will cut the most sizes. I tried a medium shoulder plane for a while, but it didn’t cut the larger sized rabbets, etc. Most of your traditional woodworking hand tools can be vintage/used, but used shoulder planes can be very hard to get “square”, so I recommend spending the extra money on a new shoulder plane. See my recommendations in my hand plane buying guide.
20. Buy a few Clamps
Woodworking clamps hold your freshly glued up joints together until the glue hardens. To start off with I would recommend buying at least one quality “hand screw clamp” (around 10 or 12 inches) and a few bar-type clamps.
But before you purchase clamps, build your first project and put it together without glue. Then see how many clamps you think you will need to put enough pressure in all the right spots. Then proceed to purchase that number of clamps. Repeat this process on your next project, and purchase more clamps if needed. See my buying guide for different clamp types, uses, and my favorite brands.
JOSHUA’S COMPLETE HAND TOOL LIST:
Below you can toggle between my 3 lists of woodworking hand tools: (1) Most Urgent Hand Tools, (2) Semi-Urgent Hand Tools, and (3) Not-Urgent Hand Tools:
- Sturdy Workbench (self-made or purchased)
- No. 5 Jack Plane or No. 62 Low Angle Jack Plane
- Block plane (low angle is better)
- Panel Saw (Rip teeth)
- Panel Saw (Cross-cut teeth)
- Dovetail Saw (Rip-cut toothed)
- Carcass Saw (Cross-cut toothed)
- Tenon Saw (Rip-cut toothed)
- Miter box and miter saw
- Coping Saw
- Bevel edge bench chisels
- 1/4″ Mortising chisel
- 6″ Combination Square
- 12″ Try Square
- Sliding Bevel Square / Gauge
- Dividers / Compass (2+ pair)
- Marking gauge
- Folding Rule and/or Tape measure
- Marking knife
- Power or Hand Grinder w/ cool wheel
- Honing wet stones
- Diamond Lapping Plate (or Sandpaper on Melamine)
- Wood mallet
- Large Shoulder Plane
- Clamps (10″ Hand Screw, Parallel clamps)
- Wood or hide glue
- Smoothing Plane (No. 4 or No. 4 1/2)
- Jointer Plane (No. 7)
- Winding Sticks
- Brace & Auger bits
- Card Scraper
- Burnishing rod (sharpen card scraper)
- Paring Chisel
- Panel gauge
- Metal Holdfasts (Workbench)
- Bench dogs (Workbench)
- Plow Plane / Combination Plane
- Rabbet Plane or Moving Fillister Plane
- Egg beater drill and HSS bits
- Router plane
- Grinder tool rest
- Saw sharpening vice
- Saw files w/ handles
- Saw sets (fine and course)
- Saw jointer and bastard mill file
- Small beading molding plane
- Tongue & Groove plane
- Ovolo and Ogee molding planes
- Ceramic slip file set (for sharpening molding plane irons)
- Peen hammer (for adjusting molding planes)
- Diamond Grinding Wheel Dresser
- Wood or hide glue
- Carpenter’s Axe or Hewing Hatchet
- No. 62 Low-angle Jack plane
- 12″ Bow saw
- 6″ metal ruler
- Shooting board (make yourself)
- Bench hooks (make yourself)
- Cabinet Maker’s Rasp
- Modeller’s Rasp
- Diagonal testing stick
- White rubber mallet (assembly)
- Scrup plane (or just camber an old blade for No. 5 Jack Plane)
- Magnifying glass w/ light (for sharpening)
- Tramel points
- Saw bench pair (make yourself)
- Shave horse
- Draw knives
- froe & mallet
- Foot-powered lathe & turning tools
- Gouges & Carving tools
- Workbench tote
- Shop apron
- chisel roll (leather or fabric)
- Saw cases
- Tool chest (make yourself)
- Saw till / cabinet (make yourself)
- Hide glue/heated glue pot/paint brushes
Hand Tool Buying Guide Shortcuts:
- #1 Buying Guide: Workbench & Tool Storage
- #2 Buying Guide: Layout, Marking, & Measuring Tools
- #3 Buying Guide: Handplanes
- #4 Buying Guide: Handsaws
- #5 Buying Guide: Chisels
- #6 Buying Guide: Sharpening & Honing Supplies
- #7 Buying Guide: Mallets & Hammers
- #8 Buying Guide: Hand Drills, Braces, & Bits
- #9 Buying Guide: Tools for Curved Work
- #10 Buying Guide: Files, Rasps, & Sanding
- #11 Buying Guide: Fastening, Gluing, & Clamping
- #12 Buying Guide: Carving Hand Tools
- #13 Buying Guide: Tools for Green Woodworking